HEIDELBERG, Germany — Researchers from the U.S. will soon be traveling to military bases all over the world to ask people, among other things, “Did you drink five or more alcoholic beverages in one sitting at least once a week in the past month?”

The last time the Defense Department’s Health Behavior Survey was administered, many young sailors, airmen, and especially Marines and soldiers, answered that indeed they had. That put them — 18.5 percent overall — in the category of “heavy drinking.”

But the Army’s rate was higher — 24.5 percent — and had increased. That could signal, said the study’s authors, “an increasing pattern of heavy alcohol use in the Army.”

Starting this spring, researchers from the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina will attempt to see whether alcohol use within the Army and the other forces has gone up, gone down or remained the same.

“It’s hard to know which way it will go,” said Robert Bray, the study’s senior program director, citing intense operations tempo, deployments and programs to reduce alcohol use. “You can think of why these indicators could go up or down.”

Bray said the survey was likely to start in May or June, and that it was expected that, like last time, more than 16,000 military members, selected to represent the force’s demographics, would complete the questionnaires, including more than 6,000 military members from outside the U.S.

“We’re in the process of selecting that sample right now,” Bray said.

The results take time. The 2005 survey wasn’t made public until January 2007.

The survey has been done about every three years since 1980, when concerns about the health habits of the armed forces were intense, and it was determined that data could help define problems and help leaders devise remedies.

The anonymous survey, completed in group settings, mostly on military bases, charts a variety of health-related behaviors, including drug, alcohol and tobacco use, helmet, seatbelt and condom use, exercise habits, nutrition and regularity of pap smears, among other indicators.

It has shown that illegal drug use has declined precipitously in the armed forces from the 1980s. At that time, 27.6 percent said they’d used drugs in the past month. By 2002, that number was 3.4 percent, and the military group was “significantly less likely than civilians to have used any illicit drug in the previous 30 days,” the study found.

Cigarette use has also declined over the decades, from more than 50 percent of the force in 1980 to about 30 percent in 1998 — but up to 32 percent in 2005. The 2005 rate was highest for young, male military members — 42 percent — and higher than that of civilian counterparts.

The 2005 study concluded that the Defense Department had made “steady and notable progress” during the past 25 years in combating illicit drug use and smoking and in reducing alcohol-related problems.

But, it noted, about a third of military members smoke, and “nearly one in five active-duty personnel meets criteria for heavy alcohol use … suggesting that military efforts to reduce rates of heavy drinking have not been successful overall.”

The study also seemed to indicate that the term “drunken sailor” is not accurate. In 2005, the percentage of heavy drinkers, from lowest to highest, was 10.3 percent of airmen, 17 percent of sailors, 24.5 of soldiers and 25.4 percent in the Marines.

A look at deployments, smoking and drinking

The effect of deployments on servicemembers’ use of alcohol and tobacco wasn’t clear in the 2005 Health Behaviors Survey.

Of those deployed in the previous year, 13.6 percent reported that they began or increased their alcohol use since deployment. But 17.1 percent said they’d stopped or decreased their alcohol use since deployment.

Slightly more than 10 percent said they’d started or increased their smoking since deployment, but slightly more than 12 percent said they’d quit or reduced.

The survey also found that although the heavy drinking rate for 2005 — 18.5 percent — was very similar to the 1980 rate — 20.8 percent — the rate of “serious consequences” associated with alcohol use had declined.

In 1980, 17.3 percent of military personnel reported one or more serious consequence such as not getting promoted, hospitalization or an arrest associated with alcohol use in the last year. In 2005, that rate was just over 8 percent.

— Nancy Montgomery

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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